From Olafur Eliasson to Gerhard Richter: the art show aiming to unite Europe | Art

When it comes to outsized projects with geopolitical undertones, Walter Smerling has form. Between 2015 and 2017, the chairman of the Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur (Foundation for Art and Culture) in Bonn and a German art-world statesman of sorts organised the largest ever exhibitions of Chinese art in Germany and German art in China. And when tensions between western Europe and Russia started rising around the same time, he envisaged a continent-spanning exhibition: “A dialogue,” as he puts it, “about what unites people in Europe. About democracy, about solidarity, about personal and political freedom.”

The result is Diversity United, a traveling group exhibition comprising over 150 artworks by around 100 living artists, from 34 countries, chosen by 10 curators. It is not, mercifully, about Brexit, but it does aim to highlight “the importance of a united Europe during times of political uncertainty”. Smerling says he is on a mission to promote basic liberal values. “How do we work together?” he wanted the show to ask. “What do respect, dignity and freedom mean?”

In 2018, he convened curators from museums and galleries across the continent and together they whittled down a longlist of 300-plus living artists to about 90. And for something funded almost entirely by the private sector, it is an impressive muster. All the textbook Europe-related names feature: from octogenarian luminaries Georg Baselitz, Paula Rego and Sheila Hicks to Sonia Boyce (who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2022), and Yan Pei-Ming (one of the few contemporary artists whose work sits in the Louvre, following his own Venice appearance in the early 2000s). Moscow-based painter Ekaterina Muromtseva is the youngest, born in 1990.

All-out … Winter Journey (Winterreise), an installation by Anselm Kiefer.
All-out … Winter Journey (Winterreise), an installation by Anselm Kiefer. Photograph: Julia Zaharova/Tretyakov gallery

Gerhard Richter, who at this point in his career really could get away with always saying no, called Smerling up and instantly agreed to take part. He proposed his European Landscapes, a set of 60 uncharacteristically small, gem-like overpainted photographs, that few will know. Anselm Kieffer too went all out, with a piece that no one had seen yet: a full-scale mise-en-scène of 19th-century Romantics (from Madame de Staël to Lord Byron), inscribed, in that immediately recognisable cursive of his, into a painterly, wintery forest.

And Christian Boltanski, who sadly passed away between the printing of the catalogue and the show being installed in Berlin in May, made a new video work entitled Etre à nouveau (“To be again”) Diversity United. Formatted like one of those children’s books where you can mix and match the heads, bodies and tails of creatures, this piece features monochrome headshots of unnamed children from Russia, Germany and France, their foreheads, eyes and mouths constantly shuffling into new facial configurations.

The curatorial team spent hours transcribing telephone conversations with the artists about their work and their relationships to Europe as a place and an idea. Nothing about that is straightforward though, not least what is meant by “Europe”.

The term refers neither to the EU, nor to the Council of Europe. The map in the catalogue excludes Turkey (which has been on said council since 1950, 46 years before Russia was granted membership) yet Turkish-born, Amsterdam-based conceptual artist Ahmet Ögüt makes his mark with an arresting installation composed of protective police shields.

Several of the curators point out that most of the artists here have lived in at least two countries, many in several more, and several weren’t born where they now call home. As Paris-based British curator Simon Baker says of Yan Pei-Ming: “One of China’s greatest artists has been based in Dijon for the last 38 years and has made these incredible paintings about Napoleon. To me, that’s contemporary Europe.”

I saw the first instalment in West Berlin, entering through a discombobulating portal of yellow light courtesy of Icelandic – Danish artist Olafur Eliasson (the second instalment is now open in Moscow). The show is divided into 10 chapters. In the opener – titled Dreams and Democracy – at Lucy and Jorge Orta’s Antarctica World Passport Office, you can acquire citizenship and papers for a fictional community dedicated to combatting climate change and global inequality. My passport is numbered 2188. You can get a mini man too – one of the thousands of plastic models Fernando Sanchez Castillo has made of the one resistant who refused to give the Nazi salute in a crowd of Hitler supporters in 1936. And you can sit with Moldovian film-maker Pavel Brăila’s magnificent Shoes for Europe, from 2002: a documentary about how former USSR trains have to make a stop en route to western Europe because their carriages are fitted for a wider gauge of railroad track. They have to change their shoes.

Mystical Protest (2011) by Slavs and Tatars.
Mystical Protest (2011) by Slavs and Tatars. Photograph: Christoph Wortmann/© Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur, Bonn

Yan’s depiction of Napoleon crowning himself (in masterful, monochrome crimson) anchors the third and most powerful of the chapters. Entitled Memory and Conflict, this grouping includes a Tarkovskyesque video meditation on fear – an endless shot of what looks like an asteroid that ceaselessly flames but never crashes, by Moscow collective Bluesoup. Polish sculptor Alicja Kwade’s rocks on slender structures is a mesmerising moment of heft and disquiet both. And Latvian artist Kristaps Epners offers up a deeply evocative diptych featuring, on the one hand, a silent film about an old man in a leather jacket traversing a cold lake and, on the other, a patchwork travelogue about two young men on a journey into Siberia.

You come out of that (I was moved to tears) only to be greeted by Estonian sculptor Kris Lemsalu’s altogether more rambunctious poetry: a wall-based pincushion of freewheeling, lifesized limbs cast in clay and glazed like a Jackson Pollock, ensconced in this tufted pink eiderdown with a boombox and multicoloured climbing wall grips scattered all about in every which way. It is a dance you can’t hear but you can definitely feel: satisfyingly and gleefully tactile.

The project, like any textbook, is as deeply flawed as the territory it seeks to showcase. For something that literally has “diversity” in the title, the cast is almost all white. Certainly all the curators are. But there is, undeniably, beautiful art everywhere, from some of Europe’s most spellbinding artists. And in that sense this is a show that cannot fail.